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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The monster is about to tear down Frankenstein Castle

One of the more surreal episodes in Scottish political life occurred seven or eight years ago when Motherwell was nominated for the annual ‘Carbuncle’ prize. The architecture magazine Urban Realm (formerly known as Prospect) gives out this award with a view to encouraging discussion and debate about the quality of development in Scotland's towns and cities. Their editorial line is that "the truly depressing places are the ones which could be great, but are stifled by a lack of imagination, creativity and passion. The towns shortlisted … must have real potential, which local leaders for one reason or another are failing to exploit."
The leader of the Scottish Labour party at the time, Jack McConnell, thought that it was a disgrace that Motherwell town centre had been allowed to get into such a state. He described it as ‘dirty’ and ‘untidy’ and criticised other towns for failing to show enough ‘civic pride’. He said that Scotland had a problem with “small provincial towns like Motherwell, Wishaw, Paisley, Alloa, Cumbernauld and Dunfermline” and argued that the neglect of these town centres symbolised “something in the public realm that has a lack of commitment to quality of life.”

It was hard to disagree with such noble sentiments. 

But this was Jack McConnell speaking, the Labour leader and a North Lanarkshire MSP. That's North Lanarkshire, the region that had been run by Labour since dinosaurs roamed the earth, the place where a blow-up doll in a red rosette would command a good majority in any of the constituencies. You couldn’t help but feel that perhaps Jack was suffering from a touch of the old cognitive dissonance. He thought that our town centres (generally run by Labour) were disgraceful, but went on to cite the “Tory economic decline of the 1980s” as a major factor. Of course … it was all Thatcher’s fault.

It was no real surprise that he could so nonchalantly absent his cronies from anything approaching ‘blame’. For more than half a century, the Labour Party in Scotland operated like the Cosa Nostra, but without the glamour, the violence or the intellectual depth. Mired in class-warrior dogma that was at least a generation past its sell-by date, the ‘natural’ party of government in Scotland could coast along in what was, effectively, a one-party state. When bad stuff happened it was never their fault, because those perfidious Tories in Westminster were always to blame and -as long as enough of the electorate fell for that line- everything was more or less peachy for Labour; it could take a pliant electorate for granted, happy to peddle the myth of Scottish exceptionalism. Scots vote Labour, so the argument went, because we have a more developed sense of social responsibility. That may have made some folk feel good about themselves, but it was -and still is- utter tripe.

Voting habits are always influenced by a variety of factors. Under the last Labour administration, there were parts of Scotland where the public sector accounted for more than 70% of all economic activity. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that if a large chunk of the electorate is -either directly or indirectly- on the government payroll, then a greater proportion of that electorate will invariably vote for the party that advocates a bigger government payroll. Nor do you need a degree in economics to understand that the continuation of government largesse, on those non-wealth generating percentages, is not merely unsustainable; somewhere down the track and around the bend, it’s going to be a train wreck for which your kids and grandkids will be picking up the tab. 

To get an understanding of just how successful the long Gramscian march through the Scottish institutions was, all you have to do is watch a TV debate, listen to a radio phone-in or loiter for a while on the social networks. You’ll soon notice that our overwhelming political orthodoxy is both statist and leftist. For a large section of the public, anything that involves spending money on ‘public services’ is unequivocally good, while anything that involves spending rather less of that money is not just bad; it’s disgracefully immoral

A couple of years ago, the right to buy council houses, as introduced by the Conservative government in 1979, was described by The Herald columnist Ian Bell as an ‘atrocity’. Some of you may think that ‘atrocity’ is a word you’d use to describe fifty people being blown up in a Baghdad marketplace, or perhaps a group of fanatics indulging in a bit of ethnic cleansing, but no. According to this respected columnist, it was an ‘atrocity’ that working class people had been allowed to buy their own homes. Bell articulated the disdain of the patrician, authoritarian left: How dare these folk get so uppity as to want to buy their own home? Where was their sense of class solidarity?  

That default ‘blame it on Thatcher’ position also accounted for the collapse of the traditional heavy industries. There was little acknowledgement of the economic fact that if you can’t make stuff at a price that people are willing to pay for it, you’ve got problems. And as recently as 2012, I heard a radio interview in which a Labour councillor in Glasgow blamed ‘Thatcherism’ for vandalism and petty crime in his constituency. But Mr. Bell’s ‘atrocity’ remark unwittingly revealed the truth that, for many on the left, the real sin of Mrs Thatcher’s government -the one that will never be forgiven- was to persuade working class people, in big numbers, to vote for her version of popular capitalism. She ‘stole’ some of Labour’s people, voters they had taken for granted. Plus ca change.    
But if you say something often enough, some people will start believing you. In 2015, when someone talks about enterprise, self-reliance or public spending restraint in the land of Adam Smith’s birth, it sounds to great chunks of the electorate like white noise. It’s not that these arguments are being lost; rather, they hardly ever get made, because that language no longer makes sense to people who appear to believe that politicians have the option of ‘abolishing’ austerity, as if there was a secret switch in an oak-panelled room somewhere in Westminster or Holyrood:

Press button 1 to abolish austerity. 
Press button 2 to abolish the deficit. 
Press button 3 to abolish the national debt.    

Maybe there's a button for the weather, too. 

If the opinion polls are correct, Labour will get a thrashing in Scotland at this election. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a party that has been quite so complacent, quite so content to showboat its spurious sense of moral superiority, quite so unwilling to accept the fact that it is economic activity that lifts people out of poverty, not government programmes. Another party may be wearing their clothes now, but that unflagging commitment to the ‘tax and spend’ expansion of the state still makes perfect sense to those who would consider economic literacy to be an over-rated concept. 

Yet even as the SNP pull the collectivist rug from under their feet, those high priests of profligacy, Miliband and Balls, are hamstrung by the knowledge that, to have any hope of winning at Westminster, they must concede that our national debt and deficit have to be addressed at some point. But they are discovering that this won’t wash with an electorate weaned on five decades of an unending statist narrative. The people want an end to ‘austerity’, so someone must promise to push that magic button.  

And now the monster that Labour helped create is preparing to tear down a once-impregnable fortress. As they survey the auguries of electoral Armaggedon, I wonder if any of those Labour apparatchiks, purveyors of the old tribalist dogma, might have cause to recall the words of WB Yeats:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, 26 April 2015

It's nearly time to choose

Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to the big vote, things are probably going to get quite heated on the various social networks. We are all individuals and we’re all entitled to our points of view, so don’t be surprised to find friends disagreeing with friends, colleagues arguing with colleagues or sisters being vehemently opposed to the views of their brothers. Claim and counter-claim will be made as we argue our respective cases. We’ll all have our favourite candidates, but we should accept that our favourites may well be despised by our friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances.

But instead of getting carried away with the passion of it all and allowing ourselves to fall out with each other, we should keep in mind that -whatever the results of the vote- we’ll still be living in the same places on the morning after. We’ll still be sharing the house with loved ones, we’ll still be going to work and we’ll still have those friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances. That’s why we shouldn’t allow a few differences of opinion to define us as human beings. 

But the most important thing to remember is this: Whatever the result, whether our favourites win or lose, we’ll get the chance to do it all again next year.               

That, my friends, is the beauty of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Listen to Vicky Leandros

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Hence why I literally mean pacifically

A couple of days ago I was going through some emails at work, replying to important stuff and kicking some less important stuff into the long grass. It’s a shared workspace and the computer is used by a number of colleagues. I noticed, after a couple of minutes, that it had been left on an 'auto-correct' setting and was changing some words as I typed. I’m not keen on that sort of thing; I don’t even use predictive text on my phone, because I don’t like the idea of a piece of software interpreting my intentions, guessing what I’m about to do next (I’m not paranoid, but everyone else thinks I am).  

Responding to one particular message, I had to use the phrase his specific requirements. I typed it, added a sentence or two and was just about to hit the ‘send’ button when I froze in horror. There, on the screen, was an electronic grenade with the pin pulled. The software had corrected my intended ‘specific’ to the (in this case) deadly ‘pacific’. I’m guessing that I had somehow missed out the ‘s’ as I hurriedly composed the message. Accordingly, my email now featured the phrase his pacific requirements.

A shiver ran down my spine.  I was but one touch of the keyboard -a mere fraction of a second- away from personal and professional humiliation.

As a bit of a purist (some might say language snob, some might say pedantic tosspot), I could never have recovered from the shame of having put such an email into the public domain. Saying "pacific" when you mean "specific" is one of the unforgivable sins. It’s worse than saying "hence why" in a sentence. It’s worse than saying "I was literally shitting myself watching that scary film" when you weren’t literally shitting yourself watching that scary film. It’s worse than saying "I’m going to give this 110%". It’s probably even worse than saying "totes amazeballs".  

It is hard to imagine a more heinous crime than sending a message featuring the phrase his pacific requirements. Had I hit the 'send' button and released that toxic email into cyberspace I would have had no choice but to commit hara-kiri, such would have been the shame I would have brought upon myself and my family. I could not have endured the ignominy, the sheer loss of face. I could not have walked the streets again, knowing that people would be sniggering at me behind my back, passing comments about ‘the idiot who says pacific when he means specific’. Ritual disembowelment would have been the only honourable way out. 

Hence why, whenever I’m writing emails from now on, I’m literally giving it like 110% concentration, pacifically spelling and grammer wise.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Making an album, part 6: Vengeance (in E minor) will be mine

Have you ever been let down by a friend or a lover? Ever been betrayed or dumped for a younger, richer or more glamorous model? At some point in our lives, most of us will get ditched or double-crossed, pulverised or put down and the chances are that some of us will harbour dark thoughts of revenge. Harbouring those thoughts can be a frustrating way to pass the time, but if you’re a songwriter you can at least even things up a little by writing a revenge song. Your revenge song won’t quite make up for any slights you have suffered, but the process of writing it will be cathartic and, if you get lucky, it might even make you a few bob.

Well-known examples of revenge songs include Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ (which I think was probably about me), and ‘How do you sleep?’ which was John Lennon’s not-so-sneaky attempt at the character assassination of a fellow Beatle (nice work, John). ‘Goodbye Earl’ by The Dixie Chicks was an otherwise jolly country-pop hit which gleefully advocated the murder of a domestic abuser, while Elvis Costello launched a lucrative career on the back of a whole bunch of songs heavily seasoned with vengeful bitterness. 

Revenge songs, by their very nature, can get a bit ugly. Alanis Morrissette’s smash hit ‘You oughta know’ is a fine piece of music, but one can’t help but suspect that it represents six months of counselling distilled into four raging minutes of bombast. Addressing an unfaithful former lover, the lyric asks:

“Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back
I hope you feel it ... well, can you feel it?” 

The answer is ‘probably not, Alanis’, but you do get the impression that she had to either write that song or go ahead and boil the ex-boyfriend’s bunny. 

In song-writing, as in life, I’m generally the sort of person who prefers to poke gentle fun rather than put the boot in, but the song I’ve linked to below (Angry Boy) does stray somewhat into revenge song territory. It was inspired by an awkward social encounter from about a year ago, when I was out having a few drinks in mixed company. During what I thought was a civilised and interesting discussion on the topic of Scottish independence, I was threatened by a middle-aged chap (who happened to be a member of the local arts community). When I say ‘threatened’ I mean that he actually wanted to hit me. From where I had been standing, I thought we were having a good old intellectual joust as he laid out the case for independence and I –from what was at the time an undecided position- batted back a few questions and concerns. Because I’m used to the company of people who like to discuss things without hitting other people, I had not picked up on the fact that my interlocutor was not enjoying a ‘good old intellectual joust’. Rather, he imagined that he was being deliberately wound up by the provocative wittering of an intellectual gadfly or, in his words, “a fucking pub troll”. In my experience, using the t-word is often a sign that someone doesn’t wish to engage in, or has already lost, an argument. Then he got right in my face with the ‘see you, Jimmy’ stare, which, although an authentic part of the Glasgow experience, is not one I’d necessarily recommend to visiting tourists. For all his ‘sensitive artist’ bona fides, the guy had lost the plot and was ready to knock me into the middle of next week. Only the intervention of a friend prevented an ugly scene which might have ended up with a late-night visit to Accident and Emergency. What with my pretty-boy looks and all, I can’t afford to take chances like that. 

As songwriters do, I stored the incident away for future consideration. What did it all mean? What had I done to provoke this sensitive fellow? Was it something I said, or something about my manner? Might I have done more to diffuse the situation? Did I really say something to offend him, or was he merely a jerk with a drink in him who didn’t like to be crossed in an argument? The evidence of the song reveals which option I went for.

The tune was one I had been playing around with for ages, while struggling to come up with a suitable lyric. Various drafts had withered on the vine as I grasped for a topic that would sit with the feel of the piece. The music always comes first, because I believe that there is no point in having good lyrics if the tune doesn’t cut the mustard. There are many classic pop songs that have great tunes and rubbish lyrics, but I can’t think of many acknowledged classics with rubbish tunes and great lyrics. When you live what, for shorthand purposes, I’ll describe as an ordinary settled life, finding interesting subject matter can be tricky. Lyrics written to reflect my day-to-day experiences might not necessarily interest the average listener. I suspect the market would be somewhere south of sluggish for songs with titles like ‘Do we need milk?’ or ‘Go and tidy your room, madam!’ Having said that, however, perhaps some readers will identify with my heartfelt power ballad ‘Broken photocopier blues’.

It’s worth taking your time with the words, because the difference between dreary lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Oasis) and excellent lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Joni Mitchell) is roughly equivalent to the difference between typing and writing. Once I’ve identified a theme and a title, the hardest part is coming up with a couple of lines that I like, signature lines that will encode the lyrical DNA of the song. Once those words are in place, I can usually work around them and start to embellish things reasonably quickly. In this case, I knew that I was going to write about the motivations of that mad guy in the pub, so the key words formed the opening line of the song:

“You don’t want to hear, you just want to bend somebody’s ear.”

Everything else flowed from that point. Once I got inside the mind of the character, it was relatively easy to lay out the possible and probable reasons for his behaviour. By the time the process was finished, I had accumulated enough material to make it a matter of what to leave out, not what to force in. To score an extra bonus song-writing point, I decided to present some of his anger issues in list form during the middle eight. Lists in songs, when done well, always impress me. Apart from anything else, it shows that the writer has given the words a little bit of thought, instead of just looking for things that rhyme, although REM’s impenetrable ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)’ might just be an exception to that rule.

Perhaps the most famous example of a list song is ‘My favourite things’ by Rodgers and Hammerstein:   

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things”

‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ by George and Ira Gershwin is another refined example of the genre, while Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s gonna fall’, written -according to legend- during the Cuban missile crisis, is said to be a compilation of the first lines of all the songs he didn’t think he’d ever get to write. A less portentous list appears on ‘Hello’, the 1990 hit by The Beloved, which features a roll call of various A, B and C-list celebrities. I salute any writer with the chutzpah to include the line:

"Sir Bufton Tufton, Jean Paul Sartre, Zippy, Bungle and Jeffrey Archer"

But I digress.

The list in the middle eight of my song lays out some of the things that might grind the gears of an angry man of a certain age:  

"You’re angry if they don’t, angry if they do, angry when they don’t think the same as you. You're angry with your boss, angry with your car, angry at the queue waiting at the bar.”

I’m going to write some other time about walking in the footsteps of my musical heroes, but it’s clear from the staccato delivery of the ‘angry’ list that this track is influenced by David Bowie. This impression is emphasised by some excellent ‘Scary Monsters’-style guitar provided by my chum Alan Robertson. Alan has been contributing to the album through the miracle of digital file transfer. The way it works is that I send him a copy of the track at a relatively early stage of its development and he adds loads of stuff at his home studio before emailing it back to me. He gives me lots of options, which is how I like it. Again, I prefer the mixing process to be more about what to leave out than what to put in; when it comes to selecting guitar or keyboard parts, my indecision is usually final. Fraser Sneddon’s bass, as ever, provides fluidity and heft, reminding me how lucky I am to know such talented musicians, people with the ability to bring my basis ideas to life.  

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but this particular dish will probably never be served; it's highly unlikely that the bloke in the pub will ever hear my song.

Now that I think about it, maybe I should have just punched him in the mouth.

Angry Boy.